What is a symbol

January 12, 2010 at 10:01 am 9 comments

What is a symbol and how can symbols help us solve the problem?

In the first chapter, I tried to show that the use prehistoric people made of the combs seems to mean that they didn’t consider combs as simple tools for beautifying themselves and the pottery, but differs from the essence of combs and combing. The problem is where and how to find it.

I also stipulated the significance I’ll give the word religion: it is what is more important than anything for the person or community involved.  In order to define the second important concept, the symbol, I need a whole chapter, which is this one.

We in the West have been taught to think in a linear, logic fashion. Symbolic thinking, that is analogical thinking  has therefore become difficult. Let me begin telling how I discovered it.

In 1985, I had accepted to give a talk about prehistoric symbols at a study day for Jungian psychologists. The big problem was that I could not find any symbols among the material I was studying. Not one. I had read many books on symbology, but they did not help me at all. I had no answer when the organizer began calling me to ask which symbols I was going to present. The conference date loomed and I was in a state of panic. Desperately I began to copy abstract ornaments and that opened the door; suddenly, with only one week left, my eyes opened and I saw everything in a new light: the pottery helmets that all archaeologists including myself  had thought of as tombstones for warriors, belonged instead to the goddess Minerva whom the Greeks called Athena.  They did not belong to young men at all. I and the other archaeologists had happily ignored the anthropological researches showing that women with small children were buried underneath these helmets.  For a moment I had the feeling that Minerva dressed in helmet and armor had appeared before me. My understanding was wholly transformed in this one moment and I began to look at all prehistoric objects not only as objects or tools, but also as as images of another reality:  The copy of a bronze helmet in pottery placed on top of the funerary urn signified not the dead person but the goddess who wears a helmet. From that moment I began the struggle to see objects also as images.

Another example may further help to explain what a symbol is:  Fifteen years ago, I asked an Italian friend   “What is the Earth?”  She answered: “The Earth is a mother like you and me.  She gestates her children and gives birth to them and feeds and cares for them.”

Terry Pratchett in his book Hogfather gives another example. (The Hogfather that has some similarities to our  Santa Claus, has been kidnapped. Death has taken his place and Death’s granddaughter saves the Hogfather because according to Death the sun would not rise if she didn’t do it. Only a mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.  Yes, the sun is not only, but also …  (I love Terry Pratchett!)

What the word meant in ancient Greece.

The word symbol comes from sumbállein, in which sum means “together” and ballein “to throw,” that is, “to throw together, to unite.” A súmbolon was usually a small flat piece of pottery divided while the clay was still moist so that only these two pieces could fit together. Such pieces have been found in the excavations of the Agora in Athens. When a family friend or a business acquaintance moved to another city, he was given one part and the host kept the other. It is a perfect example of what a symbol is. The material value of the small pottery token was minimal; however, its symbolic value was priceless. In a world without hotels and embassies, travel was very difficult when you did not know anybody, especially since foreigners were treated with suspicion. To own a súmbolon meant to be safe; to be comfortable, it was to be instantly recognized and accepted even though a stranger. For a repudiated wife without a family to go back to, as Euripides explains in his famous tragedy Medea, it signified the difference between having friends who would give her a place to live or becoming a beggar – the difference between life and death.

Euripides’ Medea. Summary:

Three thousand years ago in Greece, a young man by name Jason left for the Black Sea in the dangerous quest of stealing the Golden Fleece. The king’s daughter Medea helps him steal her family’s treasure, saving his life several times, thus cutting her bridges forever with family and country. Back in Greece, she marries Jason and gives him two sons. One day he tells her he wants to marry a younger woman. Medea must leave, but out of his good heart, considering that she has no family and no country to return to, Jason will provide her with súmbola to his friends so that they will receive her and she will not have to live as a beggar in the streets. Jason feels fair and generous, but his offer only unleashes Medea’s fury and as a consequence she in vengeance kills their young sons.

The súmbola were like our paper money, material tokens of safety, possibility to buy things, survival.  Holding a bill in my hand I hold the future–but the future does not exist yet. We tend to forget that bills and coins are symbols.

Symbols that unite

In other countries and in other times, the súmbola have taken other forms, but they are always material tokens of the immaterial future. In the story about Medea and Jason the symbol divides; in the following story, Bearskin, published by the brothers Grimm in 1819 , in unites. Here is my summary:

A young soldier accepts the Devil’s offer of great riches in exchange for not washing his body or his hair and for not cutting his hair or his nails during a seven- year period. After three years he looks and smells like a monster, but all the same an older man invites him to his home and promises him one of his daughters in marriage. The two elder daughters refuse to stay in the same room with the dirty, smelly man, but the youngest one says yes. The soldier then takes a ring from his finger, breaks it in two, and gives her one half, the other he keeps for himself. Then he leaves. When the seven years are over, he forces the surly Devil to wash him, comb his hair, and cut his nails. After this, the man is much handsomer than he has ever been before. No one recognizes him in the house of the old man. As soon as he is alone with his bride, he brings out his half ring, and throws it in a glass of wine which he hands her. She drinks the wine and finds the half ring lying at the bottom. Joining it to the other half hanging from a ribbon round her neck she sees that the two pieces fit exactly together.

Ursula Le Guin gives another example in her book The Tombs of Atuan. In it she describes how the magician Sparrowhawk nearly dies in an underground maze searching for the half  ring, which together with the one he already has, will unite his part of the world. Only unity, symbolized by the intact ring  (súmbolon) can provide the peace. The united rings are the material images of something so large and so deeply hidden inside us (do we really know what peace truly means) that we can only express it through analogies with the material world surrounding us.

If you would like an example from “real” life here is one:  In the American underworld–during the violent years of the internal fights between the mafia families–a large-denomination bill was cut through the number and given to each accomplice of the deal.

When the male spermatozoon enters into the female egg, nothing happens during the first seconds. Then the cell that is the result of the fusion begins to divide itself first into two parts, then quickly into four, then into sixteen. Before the cosmic unity exploded, the world could not come into being. Without unity peace is not possible, but where the unity is complete, time stands still.

Other meanings in ancient Greece

In ancient Greek, súmbolon is also used as a nautical term, referring to the joint where the vertical and horizontal beams holding the sail are united. The vertical mast and the horizontal boom have different tasks. They are two different objects, one pointing at heaven and the other one at the horizon. The immovable place where they are united is the súmbolon.

The Greek looms were vertical and the weavers united the vertical and horizontal threads to the same multiple unity as the joint where the mast meets the boom. To weave was considered a symbol of the peace that everybody longed for, but so seldom experienced. The vertical threads being seen as masculine and the horizontal ones as feminine, it was natural that the ancient Greeks understood the weaving and the finished cloth as symbols not only for the union between husband and wife, but also between the citizens of the same city and for the peace that reigned in all the Greek states during the Olympic games.

Plato uses the word with the meaning of making a deal or a contract. Making a contract means that many different opinions and words flow together between the seller and the buyer until they are united with a handshake.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus uses the concept in still another way when he calls the statues of the gods “symbols.” I don’t think he means only the statues, but that the statues of the gods are the identity-cards of the believers and that the city unites round them as round the center of its life.

The Symbols

The symbols are images that help us to explain such abstract concepts as peace and unity. They also link our inner emotions and thoughts with the outer world and the material world with our inner world. When we think in symbols, our life becomes richer, but unfortunately we seldom have time to meditate on them and for a lot of people it is impossible without outside help. The symbols live their own lives.

We tend to believe that those that think in symbols are less mature, less intelligent than us. They are not rational and logical because they talk in images. This materialistic view is wrong. Unconsciously we still use symbols when we talk about abstract and very large concepts, for example, love. Do we really know what love is about? Do we really know what life and death signify? Dreams speak to us in symbolic images. Our lives are poor when we stop understanding the symbolic language and refuse to listen to our dreams.

The difficulty in understanding the language of symbols is that every symbol is a key ring that holds  fifty chains, each ending in other rings  holding other chains with keys.  This means that we don’t know  all the locks the keys are meant to unlock. Garments of the archetype, they are multidimensional and able to summarize in one image the spiritual experiences of a whole lifetime. They unite the opposites and sometimes indicate the way out where there is no exit. Our self talks to us in our dreams using symbols. We don’t create them; they live in us; they are our links to the outer world and through them we may begin to understand our thoughts and emotions.

Just like we do, our prehistoric ancestors loved life and honored the dead, carefully burying them in tombs which have been found all over the world. Often they left a miniature comb with the deceased, a comb that was the best possible answer to a question that has no answer. We treat the combs as simple tools, but they still influence how we think about our hair and not only about our hair.


Entry filed under: Fantasy, Myth, Symbols, Terry Prachett, Ursula Le Guin.

The Goddess Combs Her Flaxen Hair of Nettles. The Problem

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anna-Lena Bager  |  January 12, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    How do I find the page you published this morning?

    • 2. krpfll  |  January 12, 2010 at 6:49 pm

      I didn’t publish it until pretty late. It should be there now. I’m struggling with the symbols. How on earth can I present them so that people understand?

  • 3. Anna-Lena Bager  |  January 13, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Now, after reading this far, I am already wiser. There is good hope that you will be able to explain many things that your readers never knew or thought too much about. As for myself I find it hard to separate a symbol from a sign. A wedding ring – is it a symbol? What about a carved heart on a tree trunk?

  • 4. krpfll  |  January 13, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    A symbol is both and. A wedding ring is of course a sign, but also what marriage is about. A carved heart on a tree trunk also. Symbols are material signs: objects, songs, theater, poetry, images, dance and so on and so on — and symbols!
    I’ll publish more on symbols today.
    This is fun!

  • 5. Anna-Lena Bager  |  January 13, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks for what you now have written! I´m eagerly waiting for more.

  • 6. Annmari Asker  |  January 17, 2010 at 11:07 am

    This is really interesting! And fun. Please write more – today it is a wonderful weather for writing. I´m waiting.

  • 7. Ronald Bugge  |  February 6, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Here are some ideas. What makes an «image» into a symbol and not a mere sign (a sign refers in my vocabulary to some prede-fined meaning) ? It depends on the impact it has on us : it is a matter of intimate experience. If we sense some hidden meaning, if something is stearing up inside that we cannot explain, if we perceive unexpected feelings in ourselves, or a particular state of mind, then we might be in the presence of a living symbol. The living symbol has a visible, conscious “surface” and a hidden, unconscious, that is, unknown, dimension. What happens then ? We might be intrigued, curious and start searching .…

    • 8. krpfll  |  February 7, 2010 at 8:54 am

      I agree that a symbol is much more than a sign and that nowadays many images that once were symbols have become signs. However, I am convinced that those sleeping symbols still influence us not only through the personal unconscious but deeper down. Look at our fascination with blond hair, for example. Blond hair as being more sexy that dark hair. I also think that symbols that are hidden are more dangerous than we are aware of.

  • 9. Medusa: The Story « The Flaxen Hair of Nettles  |  May 20, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    […] years ago I discovered how exhilarating it is to work with symbols, but also how difficult it is. According to C.G. Jung, the symbols are not signs or allegories, but […]


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